Local artist draws inspiration from her family's roots
Diane Britton Dunham's 'Songs of Zion' paintings will be featured during Heritage
Days at Penn Center
Published Tuesday October 31 2006
By AMY RIGARD
The Beaufort Gazette
Diane Britton Dunham has roots. Born and educated in Ohio, she spent much of the first half
of her life there and has ties to the Buckeye State. She has followed the roots of her parents and
her heritage to Louisiana and to the Low-country of South Carolina. To her, those Southern roots
are planted deeper, connecting her to ancestors and a past that spans hundreds of years.
Dunham's journey now brings her to her role as honored artist at the 2006 Heritage Days
Celebration Nov. 9 at Penn Center. About 25 to 30 pieces of her work, acrylics on canvas, will be
displayed. She has been working on this show, which she calls "Songs of Zion," since April.
Dunham spent much of her youth in Cleveland, but she often visited Louisiana, where her parents
were from. Living the city life in Cleveland, Dunham said she could appreciate those trips to the
South and a more rural area. But she was grateful for the education she received. She felt she had
the best of both worlds while growing up. "Then when I was old enough to decide which side of
the Mason-Dixon Line I wanted to be on, I decided I wanted to be on this side," she said.
A new place to call home
Her mother and stepfather retired to Beaufort in 1977. They planned to follow the typical snowbird
path and retire to Florida, but a neighbor asked them if they had considered South Carolina.
Beaufort is where they landed, buying property and making the area their new home. "I think the
area reminded my mom a lot of her home in Louisiana," Dunham said.
The artist sees a lot of similarities between South Carolina and Louisiana. "You have the bayous
there and the marshes here," she said. "I think the bayous have rougher edges, maybe, and South
Carolina is a little more feminine. The people are similar."
Dunham traveled to Louisiana when her grandmother died. She was worried about her
grandfather. She heard that when one partner of a couple that close that has been together for so
long passes, the other can succumb to the heartbreak and loneliness. She didn't want that for her
grandfather. She had considered moving from Cleveland to San Diego, but that experience made
her realize she wanted to be closer to her family.
Divorced and raising her 2-year-old son alone, Dunham had visited her mom and stepfather in
Beaufort and then moved here in 1980. She liked the area and realized job opportunities were
more plentiful here than in Bossier Parish, La., where her mother's family was from.
An old passion resurfaces
An artist for as long as she can remember, Dunham taught herself to draw from comic books as a
child and then as a teenager from sketches in the pages of high fashion magazines such as
"Harper's Bazaar," "Vogue" and "Women's Wear Daily." Her early aspirations were to be a fashion
designer. She followed that dream and attempted to break into the industry in New York but
learned that she was too young and the wrong gender, barriers she said she wouldn't have been
able to break down.
Dunham said her family had a strong work ethic and didn't believe art could be a sustainable
profession. Therefore, although an artist at heart, she has almost always been only an artist on the
side. She focused on business in school because she knew she would need to find a job to
support herself and her son. She worked for six years at Beaufort Memorial Hospital and then at
Beaufort Jasper Comprehensive Health in billing positions.
Art was always something she worked on after the daily 9 to 5 grind. Now when she is not on
deadline and can relax and paint at her natural pace, Dunham said she is a night owl, with her
real flow usually coming around 2 or 3 a.m. She attributes the late hours to the years when she
worked full time and took care of her son, only able to paint after everything else was done and he
Dunham and her husband, Phillip Griffin, have been married for 10 years. A musician, he will play
her opening at the Heritage Days celebration.
Dunham stopped working full time in 1997 and has been helping her husband with the taxi
company he owns, Maude's Cab Co. That has freed up a lot of her time to do the things she loves
-- painting, writing, and spending time with her 2-year-old grandson.
She began studying her family's genealogy around 1989 or 1990 and became increasingly
interested in her culture and heritage. "I have been strongly influenced by the Gullah culture here.
I couldn't help not to be," Dunham said. "I developed a strong pride in the history and the culture."
She has used her love of her heritage and the roots shared by her family's people in Louisiana
and the Gullah of South Carolina as inspiration for much of her art, most of which comes from her
In her youth Dunham learned a lot about her family's history and heritage from her grandmother
and family in Louisiana. Remembering those stories, Dunham said it has been interesting to see
how her family's culture has blended with the Gullah culture. "Eighty percent of Africans came
through Charleston and then were dispersed elsewhere," said Dunham. "They took their rituals
and customs with them. That's why there are many similarities among Africans in different parts of
the country. The dialect of the Gullah is different from the dialect of the Cajun in Louisiana but not
different enough to keep us apart."
Her talent and representation of the Gullah people is what has lead to Dunham being the featured
artist at the Penn Center Heritage Days for the first time, which she said "is truly an honor."
One of her pieces was inspired by Aunt Pearlie Sue's tale of "Gullah Kinfolk Chris'maas Wish ...
Freedom Comin," in which Gullah people were told to follow the star. Around Christmas time,
slave masters thought the star they were talking about was the Star of Bethlehem. In actuality, they
were referring to the North Star. "Follow the star" was code for them to know how to get to the
Underground Railroad. Dunham said a lot of codes or hidden messages were found in quilt
patterns or songs of the Gullah people, an idea that fascinated her. "I knew it was in a lot of books
but not in a lot of art. I wanted to share this with a lot of people." She also explores themes like
courtship in her art.
Her most personal art has come from recent grief. Her mother, who she was really close to, died
unexpectedly in February. "We hadn't had a death in the family in 24 years, and then for the
matriarch to pass away unexpectedly, it was a real shock," she said.
"The Secret Garden" is one piece that was done in reflection or mourning for her mother, Dorothy.
"My mom loved gardening, and that was one of the special things we shared together when I
was growing up," said Dunham. "It was our time together. We both loved nature. 'The Secret
Garden' is a place where I can go to visit my mom." This spring she plans to make more time to
work in her garden at her home in Burton, creating somewhat of a memorial garden for her mom.
At her mother's funeral, she said the eulogy talked about her mother's Songs of Zion, and how
she carried her stories to a strange land, Beaufort. She was the keeper of the culture for the family.
"I started thinking and realized that is what I am doing with my artwork," said Dunham. "I've been
preserving my history and culture for the past 16 years. These are my Songs of Zion."
Soft spoken and seemingly at peace with herself, Dunham said she has always been pretty low
key. "I love art for art's sake," she said, adding that she has never been super competitive with it or
driving herself to become some hugely famous artist. "If I ever become famous, I think it will be
posthumously, because that is not something I go after on a daily basis."
At first she painted as a way to relax, but now she must keep up with the demand for her work.
"As a true artist, you want to be able to experiment and make mistakes and be able to build to the
next level," she said. She will always have her roots, but she looks forward to experimenting with
three-dimensional art and maybe going back to mixed media, a medium she worked with before
delving into watercolors and then acrylics.
Copyright 2007 The Beaufort Gazette • May not be republished in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
© Copyright 2003-04 Diane Britton Dunham. All rights reserved.
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